Can Paolo Di Canio, reverse Sunderland’s fortunes?

Few football men possess more charisma than Paolo Di Canio. Few are so obsessed with leading through personality. It worked at Swindon where Di Canio guided the club to promotion to League One, writes Frank Malley.

Sunderland owner Ellis Short probably knew he was taking a risk when he decided to ditch Martin O’Neill and employ Paolo Di Canio to try to keep his club in the English Premier League.

But it is a safe bet he did not realise the conflagration Di Canio’ss appointment would bring. Never mind Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, Sunderland have been lined up against former foreign minister David Miliband, the Dean of Durham, the Durham Miners’ Association, most of the British media, fans vowing to shred their season tickets and all those who believe Mussolini was up there with Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi as the most noxious leaders who ever lived.

Much of the criticism of Di Canio and his links with fascism have been sensational and self-righteous.

His statement, issued by the club three days after his appointment, states: “I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.”

That’s pretty unequivocal and might have assuaged the controversy if it had not been so belated and did not fly in the face of so much that has gone and been said before. When it comes to Di Canio and his Roman salute, the Mussolini tattoo on his arm and his various pronouncements on fascism down the years, it is perhaps best to employ the duck test.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Yet, there are people employed all over Britain with political beliefs to the right of Genghis Khan. There are some to the far left who would attract public vilification too. It is actions that count. There are unlikely to be any fascist salutes in the Stadium of Light dugout — there are laws, Football Association and criminal, against that sort of thing — or any talk of politics in the Sunderland changing room.

Even so, Short, who proclaimed that Di Canio’s arrival “greatly increased” his club’s chances of avoiding relegation, must now be wondering quite what he has unleashed on a club which has been in free-fall down the EPL table.

Doubtless he hoped for a ‘dead cat bounce’, that peculiar phenomenon which so often sees teams infused with vitality and adrenalin for a brief period with the appointment of a new manager.

He might get it. Few football men possess more charisma than Di Canio. Few are so obsessed with leading through personality. It worked at Swindon where Di Canio guided the club to promotion to League One.

The difference is that Di Canio, despite weird substitutions, weekly outbursts and copious resignation threats, was left to get on with his inspirational model at Swindon. No one else cared other than the good fans of Swindon. His links with fascism were never mentioned. Why, he proved to be a half-decent manager.

At Sunderland in the EPL, which has become the gossip den of world sport, Di Canio has become ‘THE’ story.

Not the under-achieving players. Not the impatient owner. Not the loyal and success-starved fans.

When Di Canio walked out at Stamford Bridge all the camera lenses were trained on the man who had carried more excess baggage than most in a career in which he is best remembered for the 11-match ban he received for pushing over referee Paul Alcock.

If the manager becomes the story in a winning team, Jose Mourinho with Chelsea and Inter Milan and Real Madrid for example, then that can work in taking the pressure off the players.

In a team with no confidence, few goals, lots of injuries and just seven league wins all season, it is more likely to be disruptive and distracting.

The EPL is an unforgiving place for managers trapped in their own soap opera.

Sunderland needed confidence and stability plus considered time and space to mount a last-ditch tilt at survival.

So far the appointment of Di Canio has brought a level of scrutiny matched only by North Korean troop movements.

Can they survive?

Well, there have been 28 occasions when EPL sides have changed their manager after Christmas and it has had mixed results, with 14 teams being relegated and 14 avoiding the drop.

A 50-50 chance then? Not really. None of those teams had to contend with the chaos surrounding Paolo Di Canio.

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